FRONT ROYAL, VA — On August 20, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI insisted in Cologne that "Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims … is, in fact, a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends."
But is such a conversation possible? That question is the focus of an important new monograph, The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue (Isaac Publishing, 2014, 48 pages).
In the Ninth Century, he recounts, Ash'arism prevailed over the Mu'tazilite school, which stressed the primacy of reason in Islam.
Ash'asrism's denial of man's rational nature presents serious problems indeed for any serious prospect of dialogue today.
The Catholic position is clear. The Church welcomes dialogue with anyone, including Islam. "In large measure our future depends" on an honest conversation with Islam, Pope Benedict said.
Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council's declaration addressing ecumenism, expresses esteem for Islam, and acknowledges its turbulent history.
"This sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom," the Council concluded.
But Pope Benedict rejected dialogue for the sake of dialogue.
Instead, he insisted on a common ground that acknowledged "inalienable rights that are proper to human nature and precede every positive formulation."
Nature? Rights? But these are theoretical concepts — rational concepts.
Could a "common ground" be found between the rational and the irrational? Benedict didn't think so.
In his Regensburg Lecture, he emphasized the harmony between faith and reason, and insisted that God is reason itself.
"If He is reason, then it is immoral to employ force against conscience," he said – a remark that caused quite a stir in the Moslem world at the time.
"Of course," Reilly writes, "the violent Muslim reactions … illustrated the very point he was making, which was that a conception of God without reason, or above reason, leads to that very violence."
The Importance of Being Honest
Reilly limns a fascinating history of Islam's struggle with faith and reason. It is worth the trouble: once one becomes familiar with that saga, and the Moslem mind that triumphantly emerged in the Ash'arite tradition, an appreciation of this history becomes indispensable to any serious dialogue — or any serious discussion of Islam at all.
Yet, many who participate in the various "Christian-Muslim dialogues" today are not aware of what Confucius calls "the proper meaning of words."
When discussing a text with a Christian, Reilly writes, "a Muslim can see the same word and understand it differently."
This comes as no surprise. Witness the appalling decline of civilized conversation in the West into a mindless morass of Diversity Worship and the celebration of feeling, rather than thinking, as the basis for human action in our postmodern age.
Reilly, a former director of the Voice of America, once served as a communications advisor in Iraq after the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
He cites Ali Allawi, an Iraqi minister of both finance and defense during the American occupation.
Ironically, although he was a major figure in the "democratic" regime installed by American forces, Allawi insists that Islam denies the very possibility of human rights and democracy itself.
"The question of human rights does not even arise within the Muslim mind."
— Ali Allaw
an Iraqi minister of both finance and defense during the American occupation
"The entire edifice of individual rights derived from the natural state of the individual or through a secular ethical or political theory is alien to the structure of Islamic reasoning." Allawi writes in The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. "The question of human rights does not even arise within the Muslim mind."
Ideas have consequences, and, to the chagrin of many who supported George W. Bush's war to make Iraq safe for democracy, Allawi's contrary maxim has proven to be painfully true.
Today human rights are indeed absent, in theory and in practice, in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
There is no "dialogue" between Islam and Christians — only violence and persecution.
Millions of Middle-Eastern Christians, hundreds of thousands of them in Iraq, have suffered, died, or been forced to flee their homes in the chaos that has prevailed since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Does Dialogue Have a Future?
Reilly concludes with some practical observations assessing the prospects.
"t[T]here is no body or institution representing all Muslims, or even all Sunni Muslims," he writes. So the "partners in dialogue are often government-appointed scholars, leaders of specific spiritual groups, or individual academics with no particular following in the Islamic world."
"Because of the unique authority of Islamic Scripture," he continues, "everything relies on the accuracy of its interpretation."
And who decides what's accurate?
Islam has no pope. Even though the Koran is co-eternal with God himself, it can be, and is, interpreted differently, even by Islamic scholars.
Moreover, Reilly lucidly explains, the lexicon of Islam has no room for basic principles like peace, justice, conscience, citizen, prudence, human nature, or natural law.
All rationality is swept aside by the assertion of the supreme status of sharia law.
Reilly's careful work makes plain how fundamentally incompatible are the foundations of Christendom and Islam – theoretically, and, thus, culturally, morally, and politically.
Would that we had known that unwelcome fact on the tenth of September, 2001, when precious few Americans, even the highest government officials, knew the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni Moslem, much less a Mu'tazalite and an Ash'arite.
This ignorance makes dialogue difficult, Reilly writes.
That's an understatement.
From Under the Rubble archives
From Under the Rubble is copyright © 2014
by Christopher Manion.
All rights reserved.
Christopher Manion is Director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum. He served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College. This column is sponsored by the Bellarmine
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